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Council hears comments on hotel project

The most discussed item at Warren City Council’s Monday night meeting was not on the agenda.

Roughly a dozen people addressed council on the proposed downtown riverfront hotel.

“City council, save our waterfront,” Wendy McCain said as the first to speak. “I urge our city to stop pursuing moving forward with giving away our valuable waterfront away.”

She was critical that there does not appear to be a “vision or solid plan for the waterfront…. Let’s wait and listen (and) work together to identify (a) vision for the downtown waterfront” and said that building on existing strategic plan would assist in everyone moving “in the same direction.

“This needs to happen before we make any deals with developers,” she added. “Have pride in our downtown. Have pride in our waterfront and stop moving forward with this project.”

Many of the people that spoke on Monday spoke in opposition.

“I feel like most people in the community are opposed to the idea of turning one of our last green spaces on the riverfront into parking lots and a hotel,” Kyle Whitten of Sheffield added.

“Some of the other hotels that we actually have in the area seem kind of like forgotten in this,” Troy Stewart, general manager of the Days Inn, said, informing council they’re having an open house at the end of the month to highlight their offerings.

Jane Dunshie has frequently addressed council on the issue and reiterated that as a resident of the apartments that overlook Breeze Point “we so enjoy our view.” During the lockdown portions of the pandemic, she said it “made a lot of different to look out.”

“I don’t want to see the park and the beautiful greenery… gone and look at the back of a hotel, Bonnie Miller, another resident of those apartments, said.

“That park is a major asset to many people in our town alone,” Joel VanOrd said. “Just a wonderful place to be and to recreate.”

He said a boat launch would be an excellent idea but raised concern about traffic flow in the area with a hotel.

“It can just be a major safety issue,” he said.

Bob Dilks took a more measured approach.

“I do believe that a hotel is a needed commodity in our community,” he said, noting he was “not a fan” of what has been proposed. “It gives me hope that there is opportunity still there; hope in the sense that a finalized plan has not been put in place” with an “opportunity to influence that plan a little bit.”

He acknowledged that grant funds plus an interested developer is “not something that happens every day” and “not something we should look at lightly as a community.

What I would like to suggest no matter what… all of the stakeholders have to be seriously represented in this discussion and in this planning,” Dilks said. “I implore city council… that if you do vote to move forward… that you involve all of the stakeholders.”

“I’m not against this but I’m definitely not 100 percent for it as presented,” he added. “There are opportunities here. Let’s not squander them.”

Hank LeMeur suggested the “sequence of events is almost reversed here,” citing the experience retail and recreation developing in that riverfront area.

“(That) is something we can grow on. If we grow that properly… then people will want to build hotels and you won’t have to give them $2.5 million to do so.”

Two of the riverfront business owners also addressed council.

Ray Sturdevant, who owns Pennwild Outdoors, highlighted the easy access to the river the current area provides, especially for younger anglers.

He spoke in favor of a proposed boat launch in the area but said that “taking away existing parking and minimizing what’s already there is going to be tough.”

“I’m not against the hotel,” Piper VanOrd of Allegheny Outfitters said. “I just in all my experiences of boat launches and our operations… the very, very small space we are left with to operate, I just don’t know how we do it.”

She said there are more creative way to address this with additional time where everyone involved can “work together to create something really unique.”

“I really just can’t stress enough ‘we’re worth more than giving away the riverfront for a hotel,'” she added. “The space down there doesn’t work for the existing businesses.”

Mayor Maurice Cashman said there “will be a public meeting or public meetings depending on how we go to this whole issue. Council will not take any affirmative or negative action prior to that.”

Just when that meeting or meetings will occur isn’t as clear as it once was.

City Manager Nancy Freenock said she was hoping for the beginning of February note noted “we have a few city employees that are now in quarantine” and said the “beginning of February looks like it will not work” for an in-person session.

She said the meeting might be held virtually and city staff is looking into Zoom meeting capacities in the event that is the way this unfolds.

McCain challenged Freenock to “recognize the project doesn’t have the support of the community and abandon the idea. That this ends now.”

“This is a matter that must be decided by council,” Freenock said. “Asking me to throw the proposal away is not the appropriate request to make of me.”

She emphasized that “what we are trying to do it is what is in the best interest” of city residents given declines to the tax base and real estate appeals that erode that base further.

“(I) want you to be aware of all the facts,” Freenock added. “Please be aware of the impacts of your decision.”

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